With piercing blue eyes and a bone structure that could cut ice, actor Freddy Carter makes for a formidable gang leader. Add a limp to his walk and a crow's head to his cane, and before you stands the living, breathing, on-screen embodiment of author Leigh Bardugo's cunning and haunted character from the Grishaverse fantasy series, Kaz Brekker.
With the highly anticipated eight-part Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone set for premiere this week, Freddy is about to be meet the world in a whole new way. Whilst he is no stranger to stage or screen, having already starred in Netflix series Free Rein as well as Epix's Pennyworth - and twice in Trevor Nunn productions - we soon learn that the world of Shadow and Bone "totally subverts" expectations, and is like nothing actor nor audience has seen before.
Far removed from the war-torn land inhabited by Kaz, photographer Phoebe Fox casts Freddy in the delicate space between fantasy and reality. It's a balance that stylist Suzie Street plays on with perfection, opting for houndstooth and lapels that blend the lines between artist and illusion so that we discover a rising talent, who is warm, serious about his work, and far removed from the troubled psyche of his fictional counterpart.
As the muted spring light shifts to reveal the multiple silhouettes of Freddy, we settle down for a conversation to meet the actor, photographer, writer, director, and - now - underworld extraordinaire.
Shadow and Bone will premiere globally on Netflix on 23rd April.
I just finished the screeners for Shadow and Bone! I'm so excited for you, for it to come out.
Thank you! I'm excited to be able to see it. It feels like a lifetime ago - we finished a year ago yesterday. We wrapped like a week before lockdown, so it really was the last thing that any of us did in normality.
It must be strange to do all that amazing work, and then it come out to the public over a year later. By the time people have seen it, you've probably moved on as an actor, and also changed, and learned, and grown so much.
It's a really strange thing that I'm still trying to get my head around; part of the job is being able to park stuff and move on. Of course, I am so excited to see the final result but I think it's such a skill to be able to throw yourself into something totally and then once they call cut, that's your bit done. That can be really hard. But there is also a simplicity and a joy in that: I do my bit and then I can go home and leave other people to figure out how it works!
Well, you’ve starred in several series, what is it like to finally let go of a character after multiple seasons? Do you have a 'decompress' routine?
I don't know if I have a routine... Some jobs are definitely harder to get over than others. Some are just so much fun, like Shadow and Bone, the cast just had such a good time in this little bubble - before bubbles were a thing! - so to come back was a real crash back to reality. We were then locked up straight away so there was no room for any normality to get myself back into. Shadow and Bone was a hard one actually; for about a month afterward, I just wanted to go back because that's what normality looked like. Working every day and being with people and filming.
Which role has had the most impact on you, Freddy the Human?
It's a good question. I think probably Kaz, from Shadow and Bone, simply because I've never done anything with a source material that I could really get my teeth stuck into. Even on days off, I was finding it hard not to pick the book up and see what's in store. It just felt a bit more all-encompassing than I've had before. I've never played a character with a physical disability before or a character with PTSD - he's got so much stuff to deal with. So I think in the end, I was quite impressed by him and by how good he is at getting on with stuff, considering all these hurdles. That slightly changed my outlook. I'm not saying that I should be a gang leader or particularly violent, but, you know, he gets on with stuff - which is pretty impressive.
Obviously, as you've mentioned, you had the books as source material; how else did you prepare for Kaz?
Walking with the cane and a limp seemed to me like quite a nice way to work from the outside going in. I thought that if I could get that right, it might help me figure out the psychological side of the character. I quite like working that way around rather than sitting at a desk pouring over every word. You just get up and try. The majority of my preparation was figuring out that limp, and that rhythm, which then really helped with the mental side of things. Weirdly, I got this idea in my head of locomotion - the idea of constant never-ending forward movement, both mentally and physically. I looked at steam trains for that. I hope people don't think that when they're watching it, but it makes me smile to think that's how I got there.
Maybe it's a job well done! How long did it take you to perfect the limp?
I don't know that I did. I wanted it to feel lived in rather than a good impression because it's an injury that some days gives him more hassle than others. When it's cold, it gets worse, which that references in the books, too.
Is that always your first response to a character, approaching it from the outside in?
I absolutely love doing research, that's one of the best parts of it for me. But then I put it aside and get up on my feet, like I said, because that feels more natural to me having started in theatre, where you do all your homework at night, and then when you get there, the next day, you're trying in the room and working. Whilst there is a place for long conversations and debates about character, I think it's much more fun to get up and try. And fall flat on your face most of the time.
How much room did you have to make the character your own, versus balancing the original character of the books by Leigh Bardugo?
We were really lucky to have a very supportive creative team including Leigh, who's an executive producer on the show. Everyone on the team loved the books and all of us in the cast loved the books, so we were all aiming in the right direction. We all wanted it to be the best it could be. So if there were disagreements, it would not be coming from a place of "Oh, I just think this would look cooler". We were all desperate to make it the best version of the characters that we could - and actually, I think that the TV show is the best of the books, and then more. We're getting a whole new insight into these characters.
I was most blown away by the sheer detail and depth of this magical world that has been created by production. How was it to step onto set? Were you able to easily prepare (and perform) your work amongst the chaos of it all?
The beauty of some of those sets which they built is that there was really no imagination necessary. If you're walking down a cobbled street where there are ramshackle buildings, and steam flying up, and it's raining, you don't really need to do any acting. So much of the work is done for you. Like you say, the detail was the thing that I found myself getting drawn in by. In the casino, the Crow Club, that we use, all the chips were detailed with little crows and had specific numbers and this whole new language which they'd invented. All the alcohol bottles had this language on. Just the level of intricacy that it takes to genuinely create a believable fantasy world was something I hadn't really considered, which I was so, so impressed by and loved being a part of.
Can you remember what your longest day on set was?
There's a sequence in Episode Three, where we're on a train on a journey - that's all I can say - we're on a train on a journey... And that was three days straight in this tiny black box where there were wind machines and fire and a goat, and this crazy turbine spinning. We could barely hear ourselves speaking, everything was recorded again afterward because it was so deafening the whole time. But it was also really exciting because we're pretending to be in this near-death experience. It was exhausting but really fun.
How do you come back from that? Stepping off of set after that experience, how were you able to transition back into normal Freddy headspace?
Cook and watch something stupid. I wish I had something more profound to say!
Is it easy for you to leave it behind?
I don't think I've ever caught myself limping as I head back into my flat or scowling and in a dark, brooding headspace. I think. When you're working from the outside in, it's not so easy to get trapped in that headspace and get really cerebral about it, and not be able to put it down. I had a little physical trigger on set that I would do that would make me feel like I was in that rhythm and that tends to help. I think that's just a much safer way of working as well. I don't particularly want to lose myself in that headspace, because I need to remain myself in order to be slightly removed to make important judgments about the character, and the story.
Speaking of, who is Freddy Carter?
I think that if I was able to answer that easily and simply, it would be quite disappointing because it's constantly changing and in a state of flux. I'd be worried if I knew exactly who I was, and what I wanted, and where I was going, because if something pops up and changes that, then it feels like tectonic plates are shifting. Whereas actually, all I can say is that, at the moment, I'm absolutely loving being an actor, and I've been incredibly lucky to do some really cool jobs. And along with that, make short films and write, and do photography. Picking these things up, as I go. During lockdown, I decided that it's not worth putting too much stall on anything outside of your control, you know? So saying "Freddy Carter is an actor, and will always be an actor" is kind of a bit dangerous, because someone might decide down the line that I can't be an actor anymore, and therefore I'm suddenly "Freddy Carter is...". That's a very long-winded way of saying, I've got absolutely no idea.
Makes perfect sense to me.
There can be a pressure to know exactly where you want to end up - five-year plans and 10-year plans - but I think, actually, as long as you're really enjoying what you're doing at the moment, in the moment, then that will breed more desire to continue doing what you love.
Did you ever experience the dreaded 'breaking' moment when you were training at drama school - or freshly graduated - where you thought, "I’m not sure I'm cut out for this."?
I've had three today! Drama school is a funny one - yes, they do have that whole cliché of "breaking you down and putting you back together". Some are brilliant at breaking you down, but not excellent at putting you back together. It's tough, and it's asking you to delve into stuff that maybe you don't want to, or don't necessarily need to. I, fortunately, came through it pretty unscathed and was able to take everything that we did with a pinch of salt. It would be easy to get lost in it because it's 19 people that you're very close to, all wearing black in a room in the middle of a farm in the middle of nowhere, in Oxford! But I tried very hard, I think, from the beginning to remain level-headed and sort of realised that there was a bigger world out there and a business that we were entering, rather than sort of some mad therapy.
Your older brother is an actor, as well. Having had this influence, was it more of an inspiration or reality check into the demands of the industry?
I think it's probably been both. When I was 15-16, in Somerset, I was just desperate, desperate, to get out and be an actor. And my brother was doing it. He was living in London. And it was incredibly inspiring. I knew it could be done - because people relatively like me were doing it. Then it's really lovely having him be an actor because we can reality check each other. When one gets ahead of ourselves we kind of keep each other in check.
He also starred in your first short film, No. 89. How was this experience of writing, directing, and also working with your brother?
I think it's one of the things I'm proudest of. Like I said, as an actor there's that joy and simplicity in turning up, doing your bit, and then leaving. But taking something from an initial idea, and trying to put it into a script was a whole new challenge. I had never written anything before. Then directing for the first time; I was trying to express myself in a totally new medium. And then getting to tell my big brother what to do is basically why I asked him in the first place! It was an incredibly rewarding experience to go from initial idea to finished product.
Was the experience what you anticipated it would be?
Making films for not very much money is incredibly difficult. I've got so much respect for the indie film industry and indie filmmakers, in general. It was a lot harder, getting it off the ground, all the hoops you have to jump through because you can't just employ someone to go and look for a location for you - you have to go. You haven't got a costume designer who's offering you six different options, all of which will work - you're the one asking your friends to borrow their jumpers. You take a lot on yourself. And actually, I hadn't expected that. But I think that was probably the thing that I loved, and that's the bug that I've been bitten by: being at the very centre of a story. Being at the centre of decisions is kind of intoxicating.
That's interesting. What kind of stories are you drawn to?
I think that stories of hope are, and always will be, incredibly important. Hope looks like different things to different people. Hope can be in broad comedies, in fantasy like Shadow and Bone, and then there's hope in horror films - the person who makes it gets through. As long as there's hope in stories, then then we've got a chance.
Maybe that then answers this question, but what drew you to Shadow and Bone as a project?
When I get the breakdown through with the audition, I saw 'fantasy series and epic adventure'. I kind of thought, 'great. I know this world.' And then I read the scripts and I read the books, and it totally subverts your idea of what a fantasy series can be - in terms of diversity, storylines. It has all the hallmarks of fantasy: incredible magic, grand scale, and palaces, and armies. But beyond that, there is an amazing human element and there are comments on immigration and discrimination, and it did so much more than I ever expected it to. Then just the character of Kaz was such a gift because he's so cool and such a badass. I got pretty attached to him pretty quickly.
It honestly took me around half of an episode to recognise you! When I first started watching I didn’t clock it at all, haha.
The haircut does wonders.
The hair cut, the limp. That magical thing called 'acting'?! What was the audition process like?
It was strange because it sort of happened in two parts. The first being when I was away on holiday and got this audition tape through. I did it and the next day I heard that they wanted to see me two days later, so I flew home. It was all very quick. I went straight to meeting the showrunner Eric, and Lee, the director and had three or four meetings in quick succession. It was all go, go, go, and ramping up in this whirlwind - and then just silence. It was this agonising wait of about two weeks and then found out that I got the part.
Are you good at managing that in-between time?
I'm absolutely awful. And I think probably always will be, I've sort of come to terms with that. It's easier on some jobs, but a job like this - I'd started reading the books during the audition process, which was useful, but also really stupid because I got so attached to the character and to this world. The production team has such an incredible pedigree - and it's with Netflix, which is kind of like a stamp of approval. So everything about it was incredibly exciting. I was a bit of a pain to be around for those couple of weeks.
Do you have any methods to keep yourself distracted?
I try to take photos. That seems to be something that takes me out of myself and stops me from thinking about my own stuff. Over lockdown, that's a huge thing that has been very helpful. I learned how to develop my own film photos, so it's been a very nice creative endeavor that I also have total autonomy over and can choose when to pick it up and put it down. Whereas with acting, you are at the whim of other people and other people have let you do it, unless, of course, you make your own work. Photography feels like this amazing outlook that is just for me and just mine.
Is that your go-to medium to get yourself out of a creative drought?
I think so. It feels separate from acting, but also so much a part of it. I mainly like taking portraits, so it's still a study of people and the study of emotion in different moments, and character, I guess.
I can imagine that this feeds into directing also; being able to understand images from behind the lens.
That's sort of how it started. It started as a thing to do on set to pass time because the beauty of sets is that you're normally in a pretty place with people who don't mind being in front of the camera. It's full of interesting people and characters. And then it became sort of "If I was to be shooting something here, how would I frame it? And how would I make this work to try and capture both the location and the person?".
Going back to Shadow and Bone, the cast is made up of an ensemble of really exciting rising actors. Were you able to learn and feed off each other during filming?
Definitely. A lot of my stuff for the first half of the series was with Kit Young and Amita Suman, and none of us had been on anything of that size and scale before. So we were all slightly learning on the job. We would all geek out about the tiny details. It felt like a team effort in the sense that everybody was working on any given day to help this person's character make the most sense today. We wanted the whole group, the whole collective, to feel lived in and as our own stuff.
What can you share about the second short you will be working on as a director, Broken Gargoyles, which is currently in pre-production?
So a friend of mine, Fred, wrote a short play, that was on at the Theatre503 in London, and sent it to me afterward just to get my thoughts. Immediately I was like, this would work as a little short. I asked him to have a go at making it slightly less theatrical and making it work for film, and then together we have worked at drafts. It's about a Gaiety Girl, who were performers in the First World War that the British government employed in vaudevilles and music halls to recruit young men. They would do a big song and dance and then ask men to come up on stage and enlist for the war, which is kind of dark. So it's about a former Gaiety Girl four years later, who is confronted by a soldier that she signed up.
Is it based on any specific true events?
The title Broken Gargoyles comes from a quite sinister nickname given to soldiers who were injured or facially disfigured. Vanessa, who is the lead character, is an amalgamation of lots of different people, because she's dual heritage as well. So it's also a little bit of a comment on how people of colour are picked up and used when they're 'useful'. She's an incredibly talented performer, but her place in society is still quite low, and she holds no power in any conversation she has, but is still wielded as an instrument. I think the film is about misplaced blame. There are these two people who are both victims of war, both being used by the powers that be and are angry at the wrong people because of it. They're punching down, rather than punching up.
Wow, what an incredible - and really unique - story. I've never heard of these girls before.
It's mad, isn't it? I hadn't either. I hope that it's an anti-war film that nobody's seen before. It's set just after the war, which feels like a strange time to set a film because it feels like the drama's done. But actually, there's so much heartache still to deal with. Sometimes we think that the war ended and we want bang, straight into the roaring 20s. But actually, there is so much hurt that people were still dealing with.
You seem to have a pretty healthy relationship to social media. Is this something that has always come easily to you?
No. It's nice to hear that it seems that way. Like most people, my relationship with it goes up and down. Some weeks I want absolutely nothing to do with it and I think it's this very strange thing which we've all plugged ourselves into without really fully comprehending what it is or what it might be doing to us long term. And the flip side of that is some weeks, I just think it's brilliant because of the immediacy of connection, and the different thoughts and opinions. That is kind of incredible, and that side of it should be celebrated. I don't post all that often, partly because when I do post I feel like I'm sort of feeding my own interest in it, then I spend more time on it, and then that's how they hook me in. But I sometimes worry, is this worth it? Who would even want to see this picture?
What's interesting about your situation is that you're sitting on the cusp of a massive show that's about to be released. Aside from the mammoth following that Netflix has, I'm sure the Shadow and Bone fanbase itself is very active and will require a new level of engagement from you. Is that something you think you'll be able to easily manage?
I think so. That's another instance where having a brother who's an actor is useful, who has navigated these minefields before. He was on a show with a very voracious fanbase and got this big following overnight. Suddenly it was a readjustment. And that's just what it is. When I first got Instagram, I had 10 followers, and I saw most of them every day, and the pictures were probably all of those 10 people. But now it's a different thing; it's for the benefit of other people, it's to promote the show, it's an extension of my job. I'm not mourning it too much, because I never loved it. But I never want it to become sterile, or just work and no personality.
I'd never thought about the fact that when you gain a platform in the public eye, you also lose the privacy of whatever your social media presence was. And that probably takes on a life of its own.
It is a really interesting thing. It's meant that the way I connect with friends of mine has changed. Friends of mine who I may have messaged on there before I now do it privately, which is lovely. There are some school friends who I have now unfollowed because I don't want them to have any unnecessary attention. So now I say I'm actually in touch with them in a much more personal, direct, connected way. It's swings and roundabouts.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges facing young people in 2021?
Talking of social media, there's that prevalence and importance and weight that it is given by everyone. The pressure to have an Instagram or Twitter or Snapchat account that 'looks' the way that it should do. That pressure has always been on young people, in all forms. When I was in school there was no social media, but it was about having the right rugby boots or the right pencil case. That 'should, should, should' - you should be this, you should be that - has always been there, but now, we're literally carrying it around in our pockets. It's on every screen. The biggest challenge is taking something that is, at the moment, all-consuming and finding the light at the end of that tunnel: seeing that there is stuff beyond that, and actually having an Instagram page that is not 'right' or 'perfect' is kind of okay, and actually that might reveal something about yourself that is more interesting than having perfectly symmetrical photos. Helping young people see that there is more to life.
What is one dream for 2021?
By the end of 2021, I'd like to have my second short film out and be as proud of that as the first one. And to relax a little bit more, to be better with downtime, not be fretting about what's next.
Lockdown must have been a challenge for you, then.
It was I think, for everyone, at different times. Sometimes I felt great about it - the introvert in me was having time of his life. But the desire to move on and see what's next was a voice that I had to keep shushing and keep quiet. But that's also the part that keeps us working - keeps you writing and keeps me acting. You shouldn't completely silence it. It's just about managing it, I think.